Friday, January 21, 2011

Second Age Reviews: The Thing


Part of a series of brilliant box offices failures from 1982 and technically a remake of the fun, but inconsequential Howard Hawkes 1951 film, The Thing From Outer Space, John Carpenter's The Thing is part of the EXTRAORDINARILY rare (especially among horror film) subheading of remakes that are better than their original. But that shouldn't surprise any film buffs: John Carpenter is a master at taking movies that in the hands of someone with less care or skill would be fodder for 'So Bad It's Good' night at the film geek's house. But with real care to casting, screenplay, special effects and direction he manages to pull it off time and time again. It's no mistake that the best film from the ULTIMATE 'shitty' genre (slasher films) comes from Carpenter (Halloween if you didn't know, which I assume you did.)

The setup is simple but leads to complexity and could lead into spoiler territory so I'll tread lightly. A Norwegian helicopter shows up at an American base in Antarctica, with a man raving in Norwegian and trying desperately to shoot a lone dog, wounding one of the Americans in the process. They kill the Norwegian and take the dog in. What's bad is that the dog is a malevolent alien lifeform in the shape of a dog. What's worse is the alien can assimilate any living thing by touching it and turn it into a part of itself, that looks at acts just like the person it's imitating. What's worst is no one knows who was exposed to the dog or for how long. Soon people are accusing each other of being an alien in disguise and paranoia and mistrust are mounting.

The first and most important test of a horror movie is how scary it is; A horror movie can overcome a lot of flaws if it can scare you. So to answer the question of The Thing's scariness as gently but honestly as possible: IT WILL RIP YOUR MIND IN HALF! Easily one of the, if not THE, scariest movies of all time. There are horror movies out there with better direction (The Shining), better screenplays (The Exorcist), better casts (Silence of the Lambs) or more meaning (Halloween) but NONE of them approach the sheer horror The Thing can put you through. Some of the grotesqueries on display it must be seen to be believed.

Which allows me to segue awkwardly into the biggest selling point: The special effects. The special effects are not pleasant to look at, but are technically brilliant and still realistic to this day. It's a blunt reminder of why sometimes visual effect need to stay real and a reason why all of us cinephiles are more than a little worried about the same-name prequel due out later this year.

The screenplay is well written and nuanced, taking pains to establish each character well beyond the usual horror film cannon fodder and to establish relationships and friendships within the base, making it especially poignant when we watch those relationships break down under the weight of paranoia. All the dialogue is well written and natural, and the pacing keeps us on our toes, to say nothing of a fantastic slow building reveal early on and a denouement that still has viewers guessing and discussing to this day.

The actors are all doing a great job, featuring Carpenter favorite Kurt Russel in the lead role, backed by a fantastic supporting cast. The direction is all good in the technical details of course (the soundtrack is well used and appropriate and the cinematography does a great job establishing setting and mood, as well as being used to freak us out later on) but where it actually shocks me is how it keeps from falling into the well known traps of movies like this, and even turns a couple into strengths. The science is, of course, more than a little junky but by refusing to dwell on it even a little we never notice. The decisions of all the characters are all made naturally, discoveries on how the creature works or how to kill it are set up early on and therefore don't seem like leaps in logic. Hell even the lack of background on the creature or where it comes from are in keeping with the eye level of the characters.

I spent much of this time trying to come up with a flaw that I could point out in this movie, but I honestly can't, putting it in that exceedingly rare level of films that is, to a point, flawless. It's not deep or meaningful; Even it's coda and musings on paranoia only scratch the surface or are used to heighten the tension. But when a film is this successful and this well made in a genre which attracts more than double it's share of trash, I'm gonna say it can avoid being deep or meaningful. It's a massive scare fest and one of the best horror films ever made, so if you like horror, sci-fi or even just John Carpenter, get yourself out there and see it.

Next on Second Age Reviews: Five Fingers of Death

Elessar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he continues to be mildly disappointed that the helmeted version of the creature from the movie poster never shows up.

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